Courthouse funding measure to be on ballot


November's ballot will feature a question on county courthouse renovation.

by Beecher Threatt

County commissioners voted unanimously to ask voters to approve a county sales tax increase from 2 percent to 2.55 percent for up to 20 years to fund renovation and restoration of the courthouse. The decision came during a special meeting of the Board of County Commissioners on Sept. 6.

Commissioners also approved a $1.5 million grant application to the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Fund. The grant, if received, would offset cost of renovation.

The sales tax would sunset once the project is paid for in full or after 20 years, whichever is earlier.

The measure will be on the Nov. 7 coordinated election ballot.

In deciding the rate of increase to request from voters and the term of years for the increase, commissioners agreed a lower rate would be more likely to pass in November than would a shorter term with a higher tax rate.

“The sensitivity in the community, we saw in the survey, is somewhat in the number of years until it sunsets but mostly to the actual sales tax amount,” Commissioner Ben Tisdel said.

“Would it make any difference if we go 15, 18 or 20 (years)? Is the real issue for people how much money is coming out of their pocket every year?” asked Commissioner John Peters, as the discussion turned to specifics of rate and term of years.

The construction cost estimate presented to the citizens task force in August was $7,277,691. The projection for architectural and engineering fees was $651,000; and, the projection for (city) permit and building department fees was $56,000.

The task force voted to recommend to commissioners a ballot measure to raise county sales tax by up to 1 percent for no more than 20 years.

At that time, estimates for relocating employees, for storage and for relocating courtroom facilities were not available; however, on Sept. 6 County Administrator Connie Hunt presented commissioners with those numbers prior to their decision.

Hunt and her staff estimate the cost for temporary offices, storage and moving would be, at the outside, $228,620. They used a construction period of 24 months, which is the worst case scenario.

Thus, the entire estimate for renovating the courthouse is $8,213,311.

Tisdel suggested an increase of 0.6 or 0.65 percent, but after discussion the board came to an agreement on 0.55 percent.

That percent increase over 20 years will bring $412,500 per year for a total of $8,250,000, based on this year’s sales tax revenue collection. The total does not take into account future increases and decreases of sales tax revenue, nor does it consider interest costs of financing.

Hunt said she is confident the county will get grants from the state for some of the construction costs.

Following passage of the resolution placing a sales tax increase on the ballot, interim county attorney Carol Viner explained restrictions on the county, elected officials and staff under the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

“Governments cannot…expend any public monies from any source to encourage electors to vote for or against a ballot measure,” Viner said, quoting the act. She discussed a few exceptions to the law, such as issuing a factual summary with arguments for and against. Commissioners may also express personal opinions but may not initiate conversation on ballot issues, Viner said. She recommended the county appoint a public information officer to answer questions on the issue.

Viner said the county is not spending any money on this measure now that the resolution has passed.

A citizens advocacy group is forming to promote passage of the measure to renovate the courthouse.